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Special Report: The Sinking of the Explorer
The sinking of the M/S Explorer was an Antarctic first. But as tourism there  
booms, it may be only the beginning.  
Text By Jon Bowermaster   Photograph by Fiona Stewart

Photo: The M/S Explorer

LOST AT SEA: The M/S Explorer was the first tourist vessel to sink off Antarctica.


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Late on thanksgiving night, after a festive meal in the dining room of the M/S Explorer, most of the ship's 91 passengers had retired to their cabins. A few lingered in the bar, lulled by the now familiar sound of the steel hull crunching through pack ice. The 38-year-old vessel was 12 days into a 19-day GAP Adventures tour that departed from the tip of Argentina and traced the voyages of early 20th-century explorer Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic Peninsula. It was early in the tourist season, and a particularly cold austral winter had resulted in even more sea ice than usual. But conditions were mild, and the Explorer's captain and crew were veteran Antarctic sailors.


Just after midnight, passengers were jolted awake by two loud bangs. Water started flooding into the cabins and then gushing out of the toilets. Everyone scrambled to the top decks of the 246-foot-long (65-meter-long) ship. "I heard the most obnoxiously loud alarm go off, but assumed it was just a drill," says Torrey Trust, 22, a San Diego illustrator who spent her honeymoon aboard the Explorer. "Then I saw everyone running through the halls, and the captain came on the loudspeaker yelling, 'Iceberg! Starboard side!'—just like in Titanic. I could hear the panic in his voice."

At about 12:20 a.m. Captain Bengt Wiman released an initial distress call. The ship's crew rushed below deck, trying to identify the leak and seal off watertight compartments. They later reported finding a "fist-size" hole and a crack in the hull. Initial attempts to contain the flooding with bilge pumps seemed to work, but then the power went out. Minutes later the Explorer reportedly rammed a second, massive iceberg on its starboard side in the Bransfield Strait.

That evening I was aboard the National Geographic Endeavor, just 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of where the Explorer got into trouble, to give a lecture and scout for an upcoming sea kayak expedition along the Peninsula. The Endeavor is operated by Lindblad Expeditions, which pioneered Antarctic tourism and was the Explorer's original owner. On Thanksgiving day we had stopped at King George Island to drop off supplies for our upcoming trip, then headed into the throat of the Bransfield Strait.

I'd already been in bed a few hours when expedition leader Tim Soper knocked on my door to announce the Explorer's distress signal. It was nearly 2 a.m. Staff gathered in the crew dining room to be briefed. We prepped the Endeavor lounge with blankets and first-aid equipment; others laid out pumping tools on the back deck in case the Explorer could be saved. All we knew was that about 150 people had been put into lifeboats. We had no idea if they would still be in them when we arrived—or in the freezing Southern Ocean. It would be either a rescue mission or a body retrieval.

We were the first ship to get to the scene. The Explorer was lying almost flat on its side and taking on water. Four white-and-orange lifeboats bobbed over a quarter mile (less than half a kilometer) along the horizon. The passengers I saw were wearing hooded orange thermal blankets and seemed calm. By Antarctic standards, the weather was fair. The sun was cresting the horizon, temperatures were in the low 20s (-7 degrees Celsius), and the wind was slight.

The M/S Nordnorge, a Norwegian cruise ship, arrived soon after and was named command boat since it had sufficient empty beds to accommodate the Explorer's passengers. The Endeavor was full, but we lowered Zodiacs to help round up the lifeboats and assist the Explorer's exhausted crew. They had been on the water a relatively short four hours, and other than some minor hypothermia, all 154 on board were safely evacuated. About 15 hours later the Explorer sank to 4,920 feet (1,500 meters) in the icy waters.

The ramifications for the marine environment will no doubt be felt for decades to come. The Explorer's 49,000 gallons (185,485 liters) of fuel will naturally dissipate in the Southern Ocean, but paraphernalia from the ship will likely wash up on Antarctica's shores.

As we left the scene, Endeavor Captain Oliver Kruess, on his 73rd Antarctic trip, circled the sinking ship and issued three long blasts from his horn before steaming off south. It was a poignant moment for the crew of the Endeavor, many of whom had worked on the Explorer. The ship had been destined to be "cut up into razor blades on a beach in India just a few years ago," the emotional Captain Kruess said, "but I'm sure she's much happier here, where she belongs."

The shipwreck was the first ever of a tourist boat off Antarctica, but no one in the polar community seemed surprised. Accidents were almost inevitable given the rapidly increasing numbers of tourists there—nearly 40,000 are expected this austral summer, up from just 6,750 during the 1992-93 season. Still, the 2,686-ton Explorer was specifically engineered to ply dangerous waters. It was helmed by an experienced captain and crew, and its double-reinforced hull was designed to withstand contact with submerged ice.

As this issue went to press, investigations into the cause of the accident were ongoing, but many Antarctic veterans doubt a routine collision with pack ice is what sank the Explorer. "You have to hit something very hard, like stone, to cause a hole in reinforced steel," says Captain Leif Skog, vice president of marine operations for Lindblad Expeditions. "I don't have exact data on what happened, but normally there should be no problem sealing off damage like a fist-size hole." 

The ship's watertight compartments did not work either, which suggests a tear in the steel running through at least two compartments. According to Lloyd's List, a British maritime publication, an inspection of the Explorer last May noted five deficiencies. British authorities had reported problems with the ship's watertight doors, lifeboat maintenance, and fire safety measures. It also noted missing rescue plans. But the Explorer later passed its safety test at a dry dock. "It met and exceeded all safety certifications before leaving port," said GAP Marketing Vice President Susan Hayes.

Still, interviews with some Explorer passengers support concerns that the ship may have been past its prime. Passenger Rob Beck told the Edmonton Sun that lifeboats were overcrowded and the oars were impossible to use. He and his wife were in the only one with a working engine, he said, but it was not strong enough to propel the boat. The Explorer's bilge pump was also broken, forcing crew members to bail water with small buckets. "The stuff they had was completely antiquated," Beck said.

GAP Adventures bought the historic ship—the first purpose-built to carry tourists to Antarctica in 1969—in 2004. In the past it had been sending 12 cruises a year into the Antarctic, all on the Explorer, with the 19-day trips starting at $7,500 per person. The Toronto-based outfitter (and Adventure's top ranked "Do-It-All" travel company in 2007) had chartered a new ship at press time and was slated to resume Antarctic tours on January 22. "This was an extremely unfortunate incident, certainly not one we'd want to repeat," Hayes said. "But I'm very proud of how well it was handled. Carrying out our emergency-response practices so effectively renewed our confidence."

Accidents happen nearly every year along the Antarctic Peninsula, but so far most have involved smaller ships, such as the Explorer. In January 2007 the M/S Nordkapp ran aground near the caldera of Deception Island, one of the most popular stops along the Peninsula. The impact ripped an 80-foot (24-meter) hole in the 404-foot (123-meter) ship's side, but the 294 passengers were safely evacuated. It leaked fuel into the quiet bay before limping back to port in Ushuaia, Argentina.

The biggest concern now is the huge cruise ships that have begun regularly sailing to Antarctica. The impact of spilled oil from such a large vessel would be disastrous. In January Holland America's M/S Rotterdam brought 1,909 passengers and crew, and Princess Cruises' Star Princess carried 3,800. All told, that's about 3,500 more people than all scientists working on Antarctica at one time.

Many of these enormous ships are not reinforced to withstand blows from the ice. Two years ago the Star Princess caught fire on its way to Jamaica, killing one passenger and injuring 11. Imagine if that occurred off the southernmost continent, far from help. What would happen if one of those ships were ripped open? Who would rush to the rescue of several thousand lifeboat-bound passengers during an Antarctic storm?

The 46 nations of the Antarctic Treaty System, which sets international regulations for the region, have been wrestling for years to establish rules for tourism there. At a 2006 consultative meeting they warned that "limits need to be set to Antarctic tourism if it is not to become one of the major problems in the region over the next decade." Possible measures include requiring tougher inspections, banning ships not specially strengthened for ice, and instituting a mandatory buddy system that forces ships to travel in pairs in case they get into trouble. 

Others are weighing in as well. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), with 99 members, has stringent rules about how many people can be landed at one time, limits on where tourists can go, and more—but all of its rules are voluntary. Three of the big cruise companies have already refused to join the IAATO.

Enforcement in a place where there is no navy, coast guard, or police is difficult. It may require stiffening the treaty's self-regulated recommendations—or even mandating a cap on the number of tourists allowed to visit Antarctica each year. But as interest in polar tourism surges, curbing visitation could prove tricky. "You can't actually stop people from going there," says Denise Landau, the IAATO's Colorado-based executive director. "All you can do is manage what you've got, and that's what we're trying to do."


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